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The aridity of the Thung Kula Ronghai region’s alkaline soil is behind the Hom Mali rice strain’s popularity as a world-renowned export. The rice farmers and the special care they put into their production method have succeeded in turning their despair at the unpredictability of the rain cycle into assets. While quite a number of Isaan (northeastern Thai) people prefer sticky rice to regular rice for everyday consumption, the jasmine or ‘Hom Mali 105’ variety has been grown in Isaan for 70 years. How did the popularity of this particular rice variety come about?

J.A. Prescott, Herbert Greene, and Robert L. Pendleton at Bang Khen rice filed in 1948. (Source: The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries)

In 1950, two American experts were sent to the region to develop the local rice species under the US Mutual Security Agency's Special Technical and Economic Mission to Thailand, the anti-communist program within the Marshall Plan during the Cold War. They were Harry Houser Love, professor of agriculture from Cornell University and Robert Larimore Pendleton, professor of geology from John Hopkins University. 

Suntorn Seehanoen, a 27-year-old man who held a public position at Bang Kla District, Chachoengsao province at that time, was one of the 30 rice development officers that attended the training organized by the two American experts. He was tasked with collecting local rice varieties in Chachoengsao and Chonburi area for potential propagation across the country.

Before he passed away at 92, Suntorn told BioThai in October 2016 that during the rice species selection process he nominated “Khao Dawk Mali”, a native rice strain of Bang Kla District popular among the wealthy. At the time, local villagers in the central region were not fond of growing this rice, as they practice lowland wet rice cultivation, whereas the “Khao Dawk Mali” rice thrives on elevated rainfed grounds. As a result, the annual yield of this rice strain in the whole district was only 3 tons. 

Suntorn explained that the number ‘105’ indicated the sequence number of Khao Dawk Mali rice ears. Out of 200 rice ears sent to a rice research center in Bangkok, only the 102nd and 105th ears passed inspections. Later, the 102nd ear faced issues, leaving only the 105th. This strain of rice includes sub-varieties such as Pin Kaew, Lueang On, and Khao Ta Haeng Rice.

“According to the results from the comparison of rice varieties from all regions and provinces, the Hom Mali rice was most suitable for Isaan. It showed the best results across controlled plots all over the country [following] three years of propagation and four to five years of comparison with local strains.”

In 1959, the Rice Species Consideration Committee under the Ministry of Agriculture approved the Rice Department to distribute the Khao Dawk Mali 105 rice to farmers. Apart from being recorded as the discoverer of Hom Mali 105, Suntorn is also regarded as one of the developers of the RD 15 rice and RD 5 glutinous rice strains. He has produced a number of academic works on agriculture, earning him a Honorary Doctoral Degree in Agronomy from Maejo University.

The Science of Deliciousness

Hom Mali rice plant. (Photo: Donlawat Sunsuk)

On our journey through the PM2.5 haze of the Sirat Expressway, the car’s stereo speakers narrated the story of Thung Kula Ronghai. According to Isaan folklore, Thung Kula Ronghai used to be an ocean guarded by the Naga King. We were surprised to find out that the mythical creature that we had always know as a fresh-water animal was in fact a salt-water one.

This is in line with what Dr. Jirawat Sanitchon, lecturer at the Faculty of Agriculture, Khon Kaen University, told us: “Isaan used to an ocean many million years ago”. As the earth crust turned and bent upwards, a highland was formed. The past left traces for later generations, with geologists having discovered vast salt deposits beneath the region’s soil.

“The Thung Kula basin’s high salt concentrations result in alkaline soil. During the rainy season, the soil is not too salty as the water mass prevents the salt from being released. By late October when the rain has stopped, the moisture begins to evaporate from the soil, sucking up the saltwater to the surface and making the soil salty again”, explained Dr. Jirawat to us.

Dr. Jirawat points out that while the akalinity in the soil is bad for certain plants, the salty legacy left on Thung Kula area from millions of years ago is the main factor behind the added value of Hom Mali rice plants.

“In the beginning of the planting season, the water is not so salty yet. In late October, rice plants begin to flower. The soil starts to dry, forming tiny holes and allowing the underground moisture to rise. The moisture brings with it salinity, creating a coating of salt on the topsoil. The soil grows increasingly saltier, which, together with the aridity, generates a moderate level of stress for the plants. This is the same time as when the rice starts to bear grains around two weeks before the harvest. The stress triggers the rice to release a volatile compound called 2 AP, which is collected in the grains,” said the agriculture lecturer.

Dr. Jirawat further explained that the alkalinity of the Thung Kula Ronghai soil during the graining period reaches 4-6 dS/m, whereas the level in other areas is significantly lower at around 2 dS/m, which is not enough to produce the amounts of the volatile compound released in Thung Kula Ronghai. Alkanity of 18-20 dS/m can impact the growth of plants (dS/m is a measurement of the electrical conductivity of salt dissolved from soil).

“The Thung Kula Hom Mali rice also has a low amylose level, which gives it a softer texture than rice from the central region, which is high in amylose,” the lecturer explains further. 

Thung Kula Hom Mali rice has an amylose level of 14-16%, while a level higher than 19% will make the rice tough.

Hom Mali rice suits the eating patterns of the people of the Mekong, Chi and Mun basin area in the northeastern region, where soups are not as widely consumed, so soft rice is more popular. 

“In contrast, the central cuisine focuses more on curry and soup dishes. People of the Chao Phraya basin prefer harder rice because the rice will not turn soggy when eaten with those dishes”, Dr. Jirawat said. 

The soil alkalinity and aridity of the northeastern region make a perfect combination, causing stress to the rice plants at the ideal time to create a special taste.

“When the weather is dry, the rice is fragrant and delicious. Other farmers have tried sowing it in their area but they said the rice did not come out as fragrant as it is here. Rice does not like too much water. It is not good for it to be immersed in water”, confirmed Sukanya Satanram, a villager from Mueang Tao, Phayakkhaphum Phisai District.

Nevertheless, since Thung Kula Ronghai is poorly irrigated, nearly all rice fields have to rely on rainwater. If the dry period is unusually long in a certain year, the aridity, usually the creator of the deliciousness of Hom Mali rice, may destroy itself. While the Hom Mali 105 rice can tolerate both aridity and alkalinity well, extreme aridity like that seen in 2020 can damage large areas of crops due to dehydration.

Climate changes, so does Thung Kula Ronghai

A farmer in Thung Kula Ronghai (Photo: Donlawat Sunsuk)

“I am now 48 years old. I have grown rice for 25 years already. I feel like it has become dryer than ever before. In the past, the rain would begin to fall from April to May and we could start planting in June. These days, we sometimes don’t see any rain until June. We have to wait for the rain. If it does not come, we are in trouble. 2020 was a bad year”, Samran Suikong, a farmer in Suwannaphum District told us.

The Ministry of Natural Resource and Environment reported that the average rainfall in the past 30 years (1990-2020) in the northeastern region was 86.3 mm in April, peaking to 266.2 mm in August and falling to 19.5 mm in November. However, the rainfall in the region in 2020 was 66.31 mm in April, 298.44 mm in August and 2.82 mm in November. There was below average rain in the months when ample rain should have allowed farmers to grow rice (for example, April, May, June, July). Likewise, there was more rain in the months when dry rice fields should force the Hom Mali rice to accumulate stress and develop fragrance.

“If the dry season does not outlast the sprouting period, healthy seeds can still bounce back. But if it is too dry or the dry interval is too long, the rice plants in some fields die, especially those in elevated grounds. 2020 was too dry and caused patches of dead plants. In 2019, the yield was 500 kg per rai. In 2020, it was only 460 kg per rai.”, said Kittisak Singkam, a Hom Mali rice farmer in Rasi Salai District, Sisaket Province.

Not only does the northeastern region of Thailand already see little rain, the physical features of Thung Kula Ronghai underline the impacts of drought. Thung Kula Ronghai has few natural water sources, while the region’s declination and soil characteristics allow rain mass to escape at a more rapid pace to rivers or deeper underground. More importantly, there are no large water reservoirs present in Thung Kula Ronghai that can retain water in the area. 60% of all rice fields in Thung Kula Ronghai depend on the rain and the mercy of the sky. 


Thung Kula Ronghai amid the Drought Crisis

A Staff at the Rice Research Center. (Photo: Donlawat Sunsuk)

We interviewed ten farmers in various areas of Thung Kula Ronghai, the youngest who was 44 years old and the oldest being 63 years old. All have witnessed the changing climate of Thung Kula Ronghai through several droughts and floods. All agreed that 2020 saw little rainfall and a long dry spell that severely affected their rice fields.

“The drought in 2020 caused root rot, nearly killing the rice plants. The burned leaves turned red. Come July to August, it was raining non-stop. The sky did not clear up for a month. The rice developed fungal infections and spots. There is nothing we can do when it comes to drought. We can only wait for the rain”, said Samran Suikong, a farmer from Suwannaphum District.

Boontom Boonrat, a 63-year-old farmer and retired government officer from Phayakkhaphum Phisai, concurred: “Today’s climate is very different from that 10 years ago. The rain does not fall as it is supposed to. There is a lot of sun, a lot of heat, yet little rain and little cold. Normally in May, we could slowly begin ploughing the field and transplanting rice seedlings. Now, we can only start the ploughing in June, July, or August because there is no rain. Then, when it should be dry, that is the end of October–November, there is too much water. If there is still water remaining when the rice plants are starting to bear grains, the rice will not become fragrant.” 

The volume of rice harvests confirms the impacts of drought. From randomly approaching and talking to ten farmers of Thung Kula Ronghai from Roi Et, Yasothon, Maha Sarakham, Surin, and Sisaket provinces, we found that when the weather and rainfall are normal, they can harvest 488 kg of rice per rai in average. In 2020, the same ten farmers only managed to harvest 375 kg of rice per rai. The farmers revealed that not only did some crops die from drought, they also had to battle with diseases. The quality was rice was therefore also poor and rice grains weighed less than usual.

Many farmers failed to make a profit from the 2020 harvest, recalled Sompob Lunabut, a farmer from Kaset Wisai District.

“We invested more than we gained from the harvest. Some crops did give 350 – 400 kg per rai, while some only gave a little bit over 100 kg, less than 200 kg. I have 70 rai of rice fields. This area is considered extremely dry. We have tried drilling the ground for water but only found saltwater.”

If Sompob sells fresh rice, meaning it is sold immediately after harvest in October, he can receive 7 baht per kg. In November, the price goes up a bit to 9–10 Baht. The price of dried rice at the cooperative rice mill is 12.30 Baht. Farmers registered to a state enterprise who sell to a rice seed center get a guaranteed price of 15 baht per kg, but this status is not available to everyone. 

If sold at the highest price, 10, 000kg of Sompob’s rice would have earnt 150,000 baht in 2020. It may sound like a large sum, but whittles down when taking into account the five months during which he had to carefully tend to crops and incurr costs along the way. 

“My housekeeper keeps accounts of the expenses per rai, which include a rough ploughing and three thorough ploughings at 600 baht per rai. Seeds cost 280 baht per rai. Cow manure fertiliser costs 500 baht per rai and weed removal is 150 baht per rai. Pumping of water into the field if needed is 100-150 baht per rai. If you skip this, the yield will be greatly lower, reaping 200 baht. All of this does not even include costs related to traveling to the rice field, maintenance and wages”, said Sompob.

After doing the maths, Sompob will need to spend 1,830-1,880 baht per rai to look after his rice. Since he has 70 rai, this cost will add up to 128,100 Baht. After the deduction, he would only have 21,900 left from his income of 150,000 baht and 150 days of hard work.

“In 2015, the rice price dropped to 5 baht per kilogram. We had harvested the rice, loaded it to the truck, and gone to the mill. Everyone was trying to offer the lowest price possible, so we had to sell it no matter how cheap the price was. One time, we carried 800 kg of rice to sell in Bangkok. It was very heavy. We could not afford to carry it back. There was no other choice but to sell it. Once the dead body has reached the graveyard, it has to be buried”, Sompob recalled. 

Rather than competing with each other, Sompob and some other rice farmers have now begun to cooperate to raise their collective bargaining power. 

“Together we have created a local brand and local products. We have invited organisations to teach us how to process the rice, to turn it into flour, to make crackers. There are a variety of products. We’re yet to do well in marketing but we have managed to increase the income of the farmers in the group a little bit”, Sompob explained.  

What do Thung Kula Ronghai farmers want from the government?

As drought poses the key problem for Thung Kula Ronghai farmers, water is the necessity that they need the most. Many farmers told us that an irrigation system is their central demand. They believe that it would help them maintain their crops even in a year that is unusually hot and dry.

“I want an irrigation canal. If there is a water supply, the farmers will be able to stand on their feet. Some will be able to grow rice twice a year. If an irrigation canal is built, farmers can work during the dry season or in years when the dry season is long”, Samran Suikong from Suwannaphum District shared her wish.

“I want [the government] to help with the water issue. Thung Kula largely has no water sources or they are too shallow. In this village, we have tried digging ditches but they are not finished. The neighboring village has a water pump station, but it is not in use yet. I want more ditches to be dug, so that we have a water supply to use when the rice sprouts. If we have water, we can pump it into the field to avoid problems during the dry season,” agreed Malinee Chanlueang, a farmer from Chumphon Buri District.

“The main problem is the water system. If we had an irrigation system or underground water pumping system that relies on solar power, it may be enough to alleviate our difficulties during a severe drought. The farmers can then pump some water to use while waiting for the rain,” Kittisak Singkam, an owner of a 21-rai rice field in Rasi Salai District, said.

Dr Jirawat from the Faculty of Agriculture, Khon Kaen University, adds that a good irrigation system will lead to higher outputs, while an appropriate water management adapted to the nature of the rice will boost the quality of it.

“The Irrigation Department must also understand when to release water for the farmers, and when to slow down to allow the salinity and aridity to develop fragrance in the rice”,  Dr. Jirawat Sanitchon said. “If an irrigation system is in place, stopping the release of water 10-14 days before the harvest would best benefit the Hom Mali rice. The first 3-4 months, however, are the time to allocate water.” 

Nonetheless, Dr. Jirawat thinks that developing an irrigation system in Thung Kula Ronghai area will face the obstacle of unfavorable physical features. 

“Even though a reservoir or irrigation system could be built, the rain volume will still be a problem as the Isaan region has a rather low level of average rainfall. For example, the Ubol Ratana Dam (in Khon Kaen) had been unable to supply any water to the agricultural sector at all since 2018 because it was dry for three consecutive years. Another important issue is that the soil in Isaan mostly consists of sand that absorbs water well, unlike the soil found in the central region that creates clay.”

Besides water, assistance in procuring labour-saving technology is next in the line of things that farmers want.

“I want the government to provide a grain dryer and rice sorting machine. Right now, our village only has a cleaning machine, but we have seen that the neighboring village also has a sorting machine. If we have one too, we can share it among the villagers. It would help save costs because we would not have to carry the rice to have it sorted by other people”, said Somporn Sudapan, a 47-year-old farmer from Chumphon Buri.

Denchai Chaosuan, the owner of an organic Hom Mali rice field in Phayakkhaphum Phisai District, also believes that technological advances will allow farmers to cultivate rice more effectively and raise returns. 

“In the past, we grew rice the traditional way. We used buffalos. Now with new innovations, farming practices have improved. If we do not adapt, big businesses or rice mill owners will cut the prices and we will earn less. If the government helps with investing in farming machinery, our work will get easier and it will reduce labour and costs for farmers”, said Denchai.

How should the farmers fight?

Dr. Jirawat listed three actions that Thung Kula Ronghai farmers can take to soften the blow of the drought. 

“If we cannot do anything about the water issue and farmers know for sure that it will be a dry year, what helps is to swap for a different strain of rice —for example, from Hom Mali 105 to RD 15, which is a rice that has been developed from Hom Mali 105 through irradiation to shorten the harvest period. This may help dodge the impacts from the dry spell to a certain extent but we do not have a strain that can tolerate extreme drought yet.”

But Dr. Jirawat warned against substituting an entirely different species of rice entirely. 

“For the Thung Kula farmers, I do not recommend growing other species of rice besides Hom Mali 105, RD 15 and RD 6 sticky rice because these rices are high in volatile compounds that are most suitable for Thung Kula. Nature has bestowed a precious gift on Thailand: the land to grow premium rice. Farmers should use this land to generate income for their families and build a reputation for the country. I do not advise them to grow upland rice or native rice of other areas, but to master the craft of growing Hom Mali rice.”

The lecturer also suggested that storing harvest outputs to be sold when prices are high rather than as fresh rice might be another alternative.

According to Dr. Jirawat, “It is normal for the product price to be low during the harvest season. I suggest that farmers dry and store the rice themselves. If the farmers are not struggling too much financially, I advise that they delay the sale to when the price has risen. Moreover, farmers should clean the field before the farming season and clean the harvesting machines during the harvest season to avoid contamination from sticky rice or other kinds of rice, which negatively affects the buying price.”

Having compiled a summary of the problems and needs of the people, The Isaander unsuccessfully tried to contact the Director-General of the Department of Agriculture Extension and the Director-General of the Rice Department. Similarly, we received no reply from the email we sent to the chair of the Committee on Agriculture and Cooperatives under the House of Representatives. 

We finally reached success in contacting Dr. Ronwarit Pariyachattrakul, the Director of the Office of the Network of the Isaan Organic Agriculture Community Enterprise, one of the members of the Senate’s Committee on Agriculture and Cooperatives, as well as a former Thung Kula Ronghai farmer. Dr. Ronwarit agreed to talk to us about what the state has done to mitigate the farmers’ problems so far. 

“What measures does the government have in place to help out farmers?” We summarized our questions into one sentence due to limited time.

Dr.Ronwarit answered that from March the government will allocate 3 million baht to a large-scale rice crop project.

“Farmers can submit a proposal stating what they need, be it unmilled rice storage facilities, a rice drying yard, a dryer machine, or whatever. So far, 3,900 farmers have already submitted proposals equalling a collective value 9 billion baht. This method ensures that budgets are approved according to the farmers’ needs.”

Another project involves the provision of 1.2 billion baht to the Rice Department to promote the production of breeder seeds and high-quality at “community rice centers”.
” Likewise, it will be a project where farmers propose what they need—a rice harvester, budget for land leveling, a seeder machine. Farmers will be the ones who propose what they need, and the government is responsible for budget allocation and procurement”, replied Dr. Ronwarit. 

The former farmer from Roi Et explained that the Committee on Agriculture and Cooperatives has already proposed that the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives expand the region’s irrigation system. However, he could not disclose any plans yet. 

“We are aware that the drought problem requires an extension of the irrigation system so that more farmers have a water supply. Our country has enough water, but we lack an effective water management system. Senators have 3 tasks: monitor, advise, and expedite. We cannot set the budget. That is the MPs’ work. The Office of the National Water Resources has already proposed an irrigation system to the government. The government will work out the numbers, design a workplan, and set a budget.”

On plans for underground water injections, Dr. Ronwarit remarked that, “This will be carried out by the Department of Water Resources to solve the problem of water shortages. They will perform underground water mapping to figure out a way to extract water without making the earth collapse.”

In this article, we have only been able to touch on some of the struggles of Thung Kula Ronghai farmers to access the resources they need to grow Hom Mali rice. Yet we believe that the endurance of this rice strain amid the region’s arid, alkaline soil is part of the history of this land.

This report was made with support from Internews' Earth Journalism Network.

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